While Biden waffles, Kurdistan heats up
President Biden's appointment of Brett McGurk as the National Security Council's Coordinator for the Middle East has already caused alarm in Turkey. McGurk is considered a staunch critic of the Turkish government's Middle East policies and an outspoken supporter of America's partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Kufan Kanao, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Syria (KDPS), agrees, saying, "The election of McGurk is good and important news for the Kurds. At one time he was a great help to the People's Defense Forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces. The US relationship with the Kurds has been exclusively military. We want this relationship to change, so that the US will focus on the political and diplomatic efforts of the Kurds." Yet, according to the U.S. special representative to the International Coalition against ISIS, William Roebuck, the U.S. does not support the creation of a Kurdish state, either on the territories of Iraq or Syria, while Syria is "not a priority" for Biden. Americans are accustomed to speaking of the Kurds as if they were a single, united group, yet several Kurdish factions are located both in Syria and Iraq, including Turkish Kurds exiled across the border, and these warring groups do not get along — at all.
Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recalls that as President Trump's special envoy to combat ISIS, Brett McGurk was directly involved in the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an Arab-Kurdish alliance that includes Kurdish People's Self-Defense Units. The Kurds were America's main ally "on the ground" in Syria. Yet in Turkey, the Kurdish People's Self-Defense Units are considered a terrorist organization. Turkey's dissatisfaction with McGurk can also be explained by his repeated accusations that Ankara did nothing as thousands of foreign fighters crossed Turkish borders into Syria in order to join ISIS and other terrorist groups. A January 18 Turkish government op-ed on McGurk's appointment described him as "the McGurk thorn in Turkish-American relations."
Russia, Turkey, and Iran participate in the Astana Format, a peacekeeping forum dedicated to ending Syria's civil war. An invitation was sent to the United States to participate in the Astana Format's latest conference at Sochi on February 16–17, but it was refused. The Biden government announced that it was "busy with internal affairs and had not quite decided on its line regarding Syria." In America's absence, Russia, Turkey, and Iran decried U.S. support for the establishment of a Kurdish state, announcing their "rejection of all attempts to create new realities on the ground, including illegal initiatives for self-government under the pretext of fighting terrorism [and] separatist plans in the Trans-Euphrates." From Sochi the Astana Format issued a second statement denouncing America's "illegal" seizure and transfer of oil revenues in northeastern Syria because those oil fields "properly" belong to the Syrian Arab Republic. This is an allusion to a deal sealed in August 2020 between Delaware-based Delta Crescent Energy and the Kurdish authorities to restore the oil fields of eastern Syria to benefit the Kurds — as well as the United States.
As Russkaya Vesna (Russian Spring) observes, the Kurds are far from united so that so-called Kurdistan is actually a mishmash of territories controlled by competing groups with well armed coalition forces. Since being defeated in Turkey, the PKK have relocated their bases to Syria. They now claim that the Iraqi Peshmerga Kurds are preparing to war against them. The Americans and Turks are aiding the Peshmerga, and the U.S.-established International Coalition against ISIS continues to involve itself in the conflict. Moscow accuses, "Washington supplies both sides of the conflict, fighting for power and oil."
According to the Syrian Kurds, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is controlled by the Barzani family, rulers of the Iraqi Kurds. They insist that the KDP works closely with Ankara, sharing intelligence, logistics, and propaganda. Ankara maintains that a third Kurd faction, the People's Self-Defense Forces (YPG), is actually the Syrian wing of the PKK, which Turkey treats as a terrorist group. Ankara used this as an excuse to invade Rojava last October, displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians. According to Iraqi Kurdish news agency Rudaw, while the YPG admits being "inspired" by PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, they deny any ties to that party. The Peshmerga attacked the oil pipeline running to Turkey in late October, suspending oil exports from Kurdistan. Then, on 4 November, according to the Iraqi Kurds, clashes broke out between their Peshmerga forces and the PKK near the Chamanke oil fields in Duhok, Iraq.
According to SDF General Mazlum Abdi, on December 15, a Syrian Kurd unit was ambushed and attacked by Peshmerga military police. Said Abdi, "The gains of the Kurdish cause are now being nullified. We call for an end to the attacks and a solution to the problem through peaceful dialogue." The Iraqi Kurds, for their part, dismiss Abdi's call for peace, claiming, "SDF leader Mazlum Abdi served for decades as a fighter for the Kurdistan Workers' Party [PKK], which has fought for decades with Ankara for Kurdish rights in Turkey." Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) deputy minister for Peshmerga affairs Sarbast Lazgin said in response to Abdi's tweet, "We want to solve problems peacefully through dialogue, but it seems that Rojava cannot deviate from Qandil's ideology, and this can be seen in Mazlum Abdi's tweet," accusing him of supporting the PKK. According to the Iraqi Peshmerga, on December 16, "we were attacked by a group of fifty to sixty armed men who arrived from Rojava in northeastern Syria." They claim that the People's Self-Defense Forces (YPG) crossed the border near Syhela to attack Peshmerga bases and positions near the border.
Now Kurdistan P.M. Masrour Barzani is calling upon the International Coalition against ISIS "to ensure that the YPG does not repeat this act of aggression. You cannot allow the YPG to use your foreign aid to attack our territory. Any repetition will cause serious damage to regional security." Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurd forces continue to be deployed to the Syrian front, and Turkish combat drones may be seen crossing the sky above them, while oil tankers continue to be seen in Kurd waters. Some tankers have been captured by the PKK.
On January 8, Turkish state-controlled news service TRT World described the re-appointment of McGurk, Obama's former special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, as "the comeback tour that no one sane who values protecting civilian life in the Middle East would want." TRT observed, "What we seem to be getting is essentially a second coming of the Obama-Biden era, one that saw the erosion of America's influence with its allies, and a rash of terrorism the likes of which the modern world has never experienced. McGurk was a key player in that erosion, and it now seems like he is back to finish the job."
Lynn Corum is a translator of Russian who studies developments in the Russian press that affect America's national interests. She has been researching and writing on Putin's stated plans since 2009, and is a world expert on Project Russia, the Kremlin's published state ideology.